Sunday, 22 May 2011

Is Lewin’s change management model still valid?

Amongst the widely acknowledged change management models one of the most interesting and criticised as well is that developed by Kurt Lewin back in the late 1940s. Despite the model has been accused of being “quaintly linear and static”, “wildly inappropriate” (Kanter et al, 1992) and more in general “simplistic”, the Lewin approach is still regarded by a considerable number of authors and practitioners as extremely relevant. Many things have indeed changed since 1947, when the model was presented and the environment where businesses operate is evolving at an increasingly higher speed; notwithstanding, many of the change management models developed in more recent times have clearly been devised building on the Lewin approach.

Lewin’s model takes the name from the three stages throughout which it actually unfolds, namely Unfreeze/Change/Refreeze.
Lewin (1947) put at the basis of his model the assumption that “motivation for change must be generated before change can occur” so that once the need for change has been identified the unfreezing stage, from which change stems, can begin.
This is the first stage of the change approach developed by Kurt Lewin (1947), actually it could be argued that unfreezing represents somewhat of a pre-stage to change in that the aim of this phase is preparing individuals to change and making the organisation ready to move from the current position to the new desired one.
Since during the unfreezing stage individuals could feel their status quo threatened, it is crucial that all of the employees become aware from the outset of the organization’s necessity and urgency for change.
In some cases the need for change can appear to be somewhat of the blindly obvious as, for instance, in those cases in which declining sales or profits or unsatisfactory overall financial results have been recorded or when a large number of customer complaints have been received by the business. However, in other occasions the need and urgency for change may not appear so evident, so that creating a situation for the organization needing and wanting change could definitely help. In general, we are looking at developing a persuasive and compelling communication process in order to support the idea that things cannot continue to be handled the way they currently are.
At this stage, it is crucially important determine and provide evidence of the reasons and factors accounting for the need for change, the main object being to receive the approval and support for change from everybody.
The unfreezing stage definitely is everything but plain sailing. During this phase it is very likely that an organisation’s core values and beliefs as well the way things are done could be disputed, event which may in turn trigger strong individuals’ reactions.
This is the phase during which, considering the Lewin’s Force Field Analysis (How to assess change feasibility), all of the restraining and driving forces have to emerge and have to be thoroughly assessed and investigated. The force field analysis effectively helps employers to determine whether the driving forces are actually more powerful than the restraining forces, in which case change could be designed and implemented.
This is the stage during which employers need to gain acceptance for change, communicating staff the benefits linked to change and trying to allay individuals fears (Porter et al, 2006).
As warned above, this will not really be smooth sailing. During this phase in fact it is very likely that the traditional way of doing things and the organization’s core values and beliefs may become the object of critics, circumstance which could in turn give rise to disputes within the business. All of that may contribute to generate a state of controlled crisis from which could finally emerge a stronger motivation and need for change (Ritchie, 2006) and for a new, different state of equilibrium.
During this phase organizations have not only to assess the need for change, but also the nature of the required change. Yet, businesses must also identify the plan of action they consider as the most suitable to attain the intended results and the most effective methods which may enable them to monitor change progress as well.

Understanding people fears and concerns is indeed particularly important in order to take appropriate, effective and consistent action enabling employers to allay individuals’ fears and concerns. In order to attain this aim, employers should, for instance, propose redundancy packages to those who want to leave, assure employment to those who fear to lose their job and training to those who believe may not be able to perform effectively according to the new required way of doing things. All of these measures, providing appropriate and consistent answers to staff concerns, will enable a business to better cope with resistance to change and counterbalance the effects of restraining forces eventually arising (Porter et al, 2006).
Once the unfreezing stage has been completed and individuals have won the fears associated with the uncertainty emerged during this stage, staff are now keen to know, and maybe even curious about, the new proposed way of doing things within the organization.
Change is not clearly a process which can be completed in a short period of time and, although organizations may struggle to make individuals understand that change is intended to benefit all of them, there would invariably be individuals who will feel particularly threatened by the proposed change, especially those who have a strong interest in maintaining unaltered the status quo.
The change/movement phase, as its name suggests, represents the stage during which change occurs and is implemented.
Usually, during the unfolding of this phase, a relevant number of individuals feel worried either because they perceive change as a threat which could worsen their working conditions or, more in general, by reason of the shock of the new. Employers need to give individuals the time to understand change and get used to it and to accept the mistakes that it might imply especially at the beginning. Training, coaching and an open communication process can certainly be useful to make individuals understand that employers are aware of the hardships these are undergoing and that they are there to support them and do whatever they can to make things easier. Initially, people might possibly react paying lip service to the new practices and take time to accept the new direction and to actively and proactively take part to the change process.
In order to get the genuine support and participation of everybody within the company, the communication process should, in particular, make clear to the entire workforce which the benefits of change for them are and how change will practically contribute to improve their working conditions.

Despite it can definitely help, in many cases it might be unlikely that employees will do their utmost to favour a change process only by reason of the sense of urgency which has been created within the organisation and of the supposed and unspecified benefits it is expected to contribute to the organization as a whole. Establishing an open and effective communication channel between employer and employees should contribute to let staff feel  strongly connected to the organisation during the “transition” phase. Yet, allowing individuals time to understand and adapt to change will surely turn to be a key factor for the successful implementation of a change project.
Although very often employers may feel pressed for time, these should be aware that effective and successful change, in contrast, habitually actually requires time (Ritchie, 2006). In many circumstances change is not even achievable in one single bid and several attempts need to be made before fully attaining the intended results.
Once change has been implemented, its results commence being visible and people within the organisation start to become acquainted with the new way of working it is time, according to Lewin, to establish stability anew and “refreeze.”

The “refreeze” stage, notwithstanding, can be started once it can be taken for granted that individuals have shown to accept change and the outcome of change implementation can be considered the new norm, the new normality. The fresh behaviour needs to be internalised and to “become standard company practice … absorbed into the organisation’s culture” (Porter et al, 2006). The new way of doing things has to be institutionalised and have to become part of the day-to-day organisation’s and of its employees’ normal activity. Broadly speaking, refreezing could be considered as the lull after the storm, people feel now at ease with the new situation.

As discussed above and warned by Porter et al (2006), not invariably the intended change is achieved in one single bid. Sometimes in order to wholly attain the desired results several attempts are actually required. This is basically due to the circumstance that the moment change is implemented resistance can diminish in power in some areas and increase, or even appear, in other areas. In such cases, for a whole range of reasons, not least the financial one, it is not worth insisting with change in that doing so could seriously jeopardize the outcome of the entire process also at a later time. 

In general, refreezing is about stabilising and consolidating the new situation and system, preventing individuals from going back to the previous way of doing things and it is about building, or rather, re-building relationships.

This third and last stage of the process can be considered achieved when the new way of doing things is genuinely and willingly followed by individuals; put it another way, when every individual has genuinely embraced the effects of the introduced change.

Criticism directed against the model
It is indeed the third stage of the model, that is to say refreezing, which has provoked sharp criticism from many HR authors and practitioners. More in particular, it is argued that the modern business world is changing at a pace which gives no time to settle and consequently to refreeze after a change process has been implemented.

The Lewin’s model is hence perceived as a model basically lacking of the flexibility required to fit with the currently dominating constant and sometimes even chaotic process of change, actually requiring a great deal of flexibility. This criticism entails that the final stage of the process should not end up in a rigid, hard state but that it should rather conclude leaving the organisation in a sort of soft/jelly-like state which could be constantly shaped and moulded accordingly.

The criticism moved by Kanter et al (1992) about the lack of dynamism of the model is actually inappropriate, Lewin (1957) in fact was clearly aware of the circumstance that any change could have been “frequently short-lived.” The refreezing stage is not intended as a final, conclusive and stable point, but as the point necessary to determine from which point and/or state the following process of change starts.

Considering change as a constant process dominated by chaos and dealing with change according to this assumption are unlikely to enable employers to attain positive results. As suggested by Ritchie (2006), constant change notwithstanding, refreezing holds firmly its importance because without it individuals would “get caught in a transition trap where they aren’t sure how things should be done”; consequently, people will not be able to perform at appreciable standards and let alone at their best capacity.

Whether at the end of each change process the conclusion of the process itself is not clearly identified and recognized in some ways, which also means that a specific and definite objective has actually successfully been attained, it might also prove to be objectively tricky planning for a further change. It would hardly be possible to find out when and where a process has finished and when and from where the new procedure should start; circumstance which, at best, will definitely let feel individuals bewildered and extremely wary about the future proposals for change. 

The implementation of change is unquestionably a difficult feat to achieve needing the genuine contribution and support of all individuals within an organisation; not putting people in the situation to find out what is going on and, to some extent, to rejoice of the positive outcome of the previous attempts will be very likely the cause of growing disaffection with change processes and will contribute to reinforce the threatening power of restraining forces.

Refreezing is very much concerned with ascertain that people accept change and avoid that individuals use back the old method of doing things and this is possibly what Lewin intended by refreezing, supporting change in order it is maintained and taken for granted.

Ritchie (2006) suggests celebrating every successful change process as part of the refreezing stage to the double end of making employees aware of the conclusion of the process and of making these understand that change is not as hard as it might seem. Thanking staff for their contribution to the success of the procedure and for the efforts they have made throughout the process will certainly reinforce individuals’ confidence when prompted to deal with the next change process.

Lewin’s approach is not as static as it has been deemed to be in the end and it is definitely compatible with the idea that change is a journey which does not have an end but possibly just a number of rest stops. It is in fact widely recognised that change can allow just some moments of calm before the storm, with storm overwhelmingly predominating.

It can be concluded that Lewin’s change management approach is definitely still valid and that, in conjunction with the force field analysis, it can effectively enable businesses to successfully plan, design and implement change. Lewin’s approach is important not only in that representing a valuable structured approach to change management, but also because it can effectively help employers to keep track of all the achievements related to the previous change processes they have implemented, and ultimately to better keep pace with the ever changing world. What matters is not misunderstand the model and the way it has to be intended.
Longo, R., (2011), Is Lewin’s change management model still valid?; HR Professionals, [online].